Tim Armstrong Flatly Denies AOL Tech Sale Story, and Then Doesn't

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on May 9, 2012

From The News Desk

Oh, Tim.

On AOL's earnings call today, CEO Tim Armstrong reported that traffic across AOL's "owned and operated properties" is down four percent, confirmed that the company is pumping money into TechCrunch and Engadget, but aggressively denied our story yesterday that he's doing so ahead of a sale of the sites.

"It's 100 percent untrue," he later told Reuters.

So far, so unequivocal. But then Armstrong spoke to Ad Age and added a slightly mindblowing caveat:

"We are planning to invest in those properties, not sell those properties," Mr. Armstrong said in an interview with Ad Age. He admitted the company has spoken with outside entities about partnerships that would lead to increased investments in TechCrunch and Engadget, but that right now AOL is leaning toward "investing ourselves."
What Armstrong is actually admitting here is precisely what sources told us yesterday: that AOL has been having discussions for months about spinning-off AOL Tech into a separate company, the majority of which would be owned by someone else, but with the stumbling Internet giant retaining a small stake.

You can call that deal a "partnership that would lead to increased investment in TechCrunch and Engadget," you can call it a spin-off, or you can call it a sale. We chose the latter, because everything else is semantics. Even AOL wouldn't be dumb enough to sell their tech blog arm without retaining a stake.

All we're quibbling about here is how large a percentage of TechCrunch, Engadget, et al. AOL might retain when they sell. And at the $70m+ price tag our sources confirmed yesterday, it's pretty clear how much control that "partnership" would leave AOL when the deal is done.

On Armstrong's earnings call, he called the sale story "100 percent untrue." What he in fact meant was the the story of a 100 percent sale is untrue. (Nicely played Tim: As a lover of verbal gymnastics, I applaud your mastery of the art.) Unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that we have concrete sources whose discussions with AOL about buying... Sorry...spinning off TechCrunch and Engadget got as far as AOL actually naming their price.

The real tragedy here, though, is that a sale/spin-off/call-it-what-you-like of TechCrunch and Engadget would be by far the best thing for everyone involved. AOL gets to keep a stake and save face, TC and Engadget get their independence (and maybe in TC's case, its founder) back, and the rest of the world gets two refreshed and renewed independent tech blogs again. Given that editorial staff at AOL Tech continue to take pleasure in taunting their "poopy pants" owners, it's not clear there's anyone who doesn't want that deal to happen.


Additional note: there's only one part of yesterday's story that I regret, and that's mentioning Kara Swisher as a possible buyer. That was my screw up. Sarah didn't want to put it in, because Swisher hadn't responded to her attempts to contact her for confirmation. I had heard the "tire kicking" rumour from someone who was in a position to know, and so I felt it important to include Swisher in the paragraph speculating on possible buyers. When Swisher and Sarah finally spoke, Swisher flatly denied the suggestion, adding that her statements about wanting to buy TechCrunch had been just a joke. Everything else in the story, I (and we) absolutely stand by.

Additional additional note: Michael Arrington is adamant that the Swisher rumour is true, cites (unnamed) sources.

Third and final note: In a series of tweets, Swisher acknowledges that Armstrong called her to discuss a 'partnership'. Also that she spoke to TC writers about the idea of buying TechCrunch.